As we get closer to October 31st, more and more stories are popping up about the history of this holiday. As an avid Irish folklore researcher, I’ve learned a lot about the stories of pagan Ireland. And a lot of them revolve around this time of year, specifically Samhain–the precursor to our Halloween. While there are also a lot of Scottish stories that occur during Samhain, for the purpose of this article I’m focusing on Irish folklore. (although there are a lot of similarities between the two)

Samhain (or Halloween) occurs during a period of time that signifies the “dying of the days”. The days are getting shorter, nights are definitely longer, and whatever hasn’t been harvested for the winter is left behind. It’s also a time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead thins. This allows spirits from the other side to come into the living world to cause all kinds of mischief. This time of year also sees an increased in the activity (both mischievous and malicious) of The Good People (aka Irish Fairies). The Slua Sidhe (a fairy host) is active on Samhain, looking for mortals to take mortals to their world where they keep them as servants until tossing them back into the real world–sometimes decades after they’ve been abducted.

The Púca (a Celtic phantom goblin fairy) is also roaming about, especially on Oiche Shamna (Samhain Eve), causing trouble. The Púca is known for ruining the fruit that hasn’t been harvested (by spitting, urinating, or stomping on the berries), leaving them inedible for humans. This story is similar to the one about Michaelmas, the anniversary of when St. Michael tossed Lucifer out of Heaven and he landed on a blackberry bush. Samhain is also known in Celtic fairytales as a fire festival (one of the Ember Days) where fairies move their homes and are more visible to humans. So, around this time of year, there are more stories about people actually seeing or interacting with Irish fairies.

One story, according to the Cath Maige Tuired (two of the sagas of the mythological cycle of Irish Mythology that translates as “The Battle of Magh Tuireadh”), the Morrigan (an Irish warrior/goddess/queen) and the Dagda (the chief of the Tuatha dé Danann–the highest level of Irish fairies) meet at Glen Tin. It was here, at Glen Tin on Samhain, that the Tuatha de Danann fought their greatest enemy, the Fomorians (a supernatural race of Celtic monsters). The Fomorians had been demanding a tribute of corn and children from the human population every Samhain Eve, and the Tuatha dé Danann fought this great battle on the behalf of people. So every Samhain since, the Morrigan and the Dagda meet at Glen Tin around a bonfire to remember the battle and all of those (supernatural and human) who were lost. But, if you’re an unlucky mortal who stumbles upon this fiery festival, you may end up living the rest of your mortal days in the Otherworld as a prisoner. If you’re lucky, they’ll allow you to serve them

There are more not-so-friendly stories about Samhain and the Tuatha dé Danann. According to P. W. Joyce’s Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, the Sidhe would open up the veils between the Otherworld and the real world on Samhain Eve. This “opening” would allow supernatural monsters such as two-headed birds, chimeras, and Púcas (goblins), to emerge and cause devastation on Earth. Because these creatures sought out mortals to eat or destroy, people began dressing up as either fairy folk or animals to avoid these monsters.

Another Celtic Samhain myth mentions a man named Nera who takes up a challenge issued by the Irish King Aillil. This challenge required a man to tie a cord around the ankle of another man who’d been recently hanged. When Nera, dragging the dead man by the ankle, goes out on Samhain night he has all sorts of scary adventures including talking to the dead, joining a Slua Sidhe (fairy host) for a party in the Otherworld, taking a fairy wife, and then returning to King Aillil to issue a warning from the fairies that an attack by Fomorians would happen the day after Samhain (All Saints Day). Nera proves his stories by showing King Aillil the fruit Nera has taken from the Otheworld–fruit not available in the human world until summertime.

Because of the increased activity of the Tuatha dé Danann and the Púca around Samhain, many Irish traditions include avoiding certain areas and protecting oneself against encounters with the fairies. One example is that, after dark on Samhain Eve, you’re not supposed to walk on the west side of a building or near any kind of water. Also, you’re not supposed to travel at night. And if you have to leave your house, you carry a piece of iron (like an iron nail) and you turn an article of your clothing inside out.

But some people want to meet up with the fairy folk on Samhain. So, if you’re inclined to do that, you have a few options to attract their attention. First, you can offer yourself as a tribute. If you are chosen by the Tuatha dé Danann, you will be forced to undergo tests of courage and fortitude. Since many of the fairy folk can be quite malicious, they will never guarantee your safety. If you want to submit to their trials, hoping for a chance to either become immortal (like a lower fairy) or to have access to the Otherworld, you’re on your own.

Another way to meet fairies on Samhain is to leave out offerings in case the Tuatha dé Danann wander by while trick-or-treating. Supposedly, the Tuatha dé Danann love milk or cream along with a piece of freshly-baked bread. They also like candy. But whatever you offer, don’t be stingy. The Tuatha dé Danann really hate stingy humans!

There are a lot more stories about Irish fairies and Samhain, but they tend to be about battles and massive amounts of death that I don’t like writing about. But, however you choose to celebrate Samhain or Halloween, consider carrying a bit of iron in your pocket and wearing your socks inside out. Because on a dark Halloween night you never know who–or what–you’ll encounter.

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